The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre is closed for refurbishment, but Stratford still has great Shakespearean theatre and lots more to offer during a long weekend break
“The RSC is open” screams the huge red hoardings around the half-rebuilt Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. It is, and so is the rest of Stratford upon Avon and despite the continued closure of the main theatre there’s still a lot to attract.
For starters, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) has upped sticks and moved a few hundred meters down the road to the Courtyard Theatre, formerly known as “The Other Place”. What this theatre lacks in size, compared to the old Memorial Theatre, it more than makes up for in other ways. The stage is arranged so there is audience on three sides, which means that you are never far from the action, and the RSC’s inventive staging means that, if you are in an aisle seat, you could find Hamlet or Mark Anthony (David ‘Doctor Who’ Tennant and Patrick ‘Jean-Luc Piccard’ Stewart in a recent season) brushing past you on the way to centre stage. What’s more, on the way to and from your seats at the interval you catch fascinating glimpses of the tiny cupboards, containing props for use later on stage, arranged all around the perimeter of the auditorium. A tiny glimpse into the inner workings of the theatre. Don’t wait until the new theatre opens in 2010, see Shakespeare at this little gem while you can.
By the way, for those who like to rub shoulders with the performers, the Black Swan Pub or Dirty Duck, depending on which side of the sign you read, just down the way in Southern Lane is a favourite watering hole for the actors after the show.
If you have more than one night in Stratford check out Cox’s Yard for a very different form of live entertainment. Most nights of the week will find live music being played in the upstairs room. Acts range from tribute bands to classic rock musicians (Midge Ure of Ultravox fame and Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze in recent months). There’s also stand up comedy on the first Thursday of each month. During the day Cox’s Yard is also a good riverside family pub with reasonably priced food, and there’s also a coffee shop and separate tea room where scrumptious cakes and luxury ice cream are on sale.
A different, and more scary, evening activity is the Stratford Town Ghost Walk (Waterside, various evenings) which provides some heart stopping surprises. Beware the ringing bell!
If you want to stick with the Shakespeare theme there’s plenty to do during the day, not least the five properties operated by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. You can buy a ticket that gives you entry to all five and be transported between them on the open top bus tour for £22.50 at the Tourist Information Centre at Bridgefoot, or they also offer any three houses of your choice plus the bus for £20. Three of the houses are in the town and two (Mary Arden’s House and Anne Hathaway’s Cottage) are a little way outside, so you will need transport. For my money five properties in a day is a bit much and you might want to choose which ones to visit based on your interest. The birthplace itself is a must. If you have children then Mary Arden’s (Shakespeare’s mother) House has a working Tudor Farm and Hall’s Croft has a Jacobean Doctor’s consulting room with suitably macabre instruments. For the romantics Anne Hathaway’s (Shakespeare’s wife) Cottage is an archetypal chocolate box thatched cottage. I found Nash’s house to be of least interest, though it is allegedly where Shakespeare died, if you want to bring your tour to a logical end. Look out for various special events that are held at each of the properties too, almost all year round.
In the town itself the Falstaff Experience in Sheep Street continues the Tudor theme in theatrical style and is worth a visit.
Away from the Shakespeare theme there’s a lot more to see and do. For families there’s the Butterfly Farm in Tramway Walk where you can wander through a tropical atmosphere with brilliantly coloured butterflies swooping all around you. For the braver souls there’s Arachnoland, where exotic and deadly spiders can be seen, mercifully behind glass!
Less well known, but equally fascinating is the unpromisingly named Brass Rubbing Centre (in Southern Lane opposite the Courtyard Theatre). Brass rubbing involves stretching paper over a brass facsimile, mostly of historical characters, knights in armour and the like, and rubbing brightly-coloured metallic waxes over them so that the image of the brass is reproduced on the paper. I was amazed at how much fun this was and even quite young and inexperienced “rubbers” can get pleasing results. If you are unhappy with the fruits of your labour you can buy one of the professionally produced rubbings from the shop.
While in this vicinity, take the opportunity of crossing the river on the historic chain ferry, the only one left in the country apparently, which uses person power to get it across the river to the recreation ground. Once you are over there there’s a mini and crazy golf and an adventure playground for children. The river itself provides boat trips and smaller boat hire. Try Avon Boating at Stratford Marina (cross over the A3400 near Cox’s Yard to the Holiday Inn side of the road). It’s slightly out of the way so there are fewer queues and better prices.
Where to eat and drink
Head for Sheep Street. At last count there was a choice of 12 eateries in about 200 meters there, ranging from traditional fish and chips at Barnaby’s, an equally traditional curry house, Thespians, with reasonable prices (£8 - £9 approx main course; 01789 267187; www.thespiansindianrestaurant.co.uk) and friendly service, or the slightly more upmarket Georgetown Malaysian (£9 -£14; 01789 204445; www.georgetownrestaurants.co.uk). For a modern Bistro type environment try The Oppo (£11-£14; 01789 269980; www.theoppo.co.uk). We enjoyed Cafe Pasta, modern decoration, good range of Italian Food (£8 -£9 Main course; 01789 262910) and, because we were going to the theatre and requested it, brisk but cordial service. Wherever you eat, if you are going to the theatre, check out the special offers. You will need to show your tickets to get some of them, but it’s often worth it.
Where to stay
Our most recent stay was at the excellent The White Swan Hotel, which with its oak beams, panelled dining room and open fireplaces sets the perfect tone for a historical visit. It is situated adjacent to the Market square and about five minutes walk from the river. A previous stay had been at Alveston Manor, another lovely character building just the other side of Clopton Bridge from the town. Try to get a room at the front of the hotel as the back was added later and lacks the character. For a B&B break some friends recommended Avonlea Guest House in Shipston Road in town for a warm welcome and great local knowledge.